by Rana Asfour
It seems that wherever Joumana Haddad goes, controversy is never too far behind. She is the author of the 2010 bestseller ‘I Killed Sheherazade’, a provocative book in which she challenged prevalent notions of identity and womanhood in the Middle East and spoke of how she came to create the Arab world's first erotic literary magazine, Jasad (Body), that has earned her both admiration and censure. That was followed by ‘Superman is an Arab’ which she wrote in 2012 and was described as a howl in the face of a particular species of men: the macho species, 'Supermen', as they like to envision themselves. Haddad rallied for the vital need for a new masculinity in the times of revolution and change in the Middle East.
And now this charismatic, and enigmatic Lebanese poet, author, journalist, academic and human rights activist is back with a new release ‘The Third Sex’, a final panel that makes up the triptych she confesses to always have had in mind since the release of her first book. It is by far the more mature of her writings, with less sex but far from subdued nevertheless. In fact she writes that the ‘anger, indignation and revolt are all here, in this new book, even more ardent than before’, and I can assure you, she’s not kidding.
‘The Third Sex’ is Joumana Haddad’s ‘personal life experience … meant to show the real wound from where the ideas, aspirations and propositions have bled’ culminating in the birth of this book in which she encourages the human race to re-discover its humanity and emerge a Humanus –Latin for Humane, a ‘Third Sex’; one that Haddad defines in her introductory note as ‘a human being transcending his/her differences (not cancelling them); a human being transcending his/her characteristics (not denying them); but most of all, a human being transcending everything that infuses hatred and ill-will in him/her. A human being stripped of all classifications and influences, except his/her humaneness’.
The book’s timely release is its major saving grace. It launches at a time when the world is witnessing barbaric acts of terrorism, and an Arab world that is having to deal with the repercussions of a spring revolt that has proven itself a bitter harsh winter instead. Therefore, it is particularly imperative in these challenging times that books such as Haddad’s serve as reminders that we are not all monsters and there is yet hope for mankind. What she advocates is an internal confrontation with the self that is well overdue in a last bid to preserving our humaneness – the essence of what defines us. Haddad in short is calling for a revolution: A Humane one to save mankind.
The book is divided into seven chapters with each one highlighting a particular quality that the author felt she ‘needed to acquire, nourish and develop in ‘Operation Humanus’: the Fighter, the Truthful, the Thinker, the Listener, the Compassionate, the Proud and the Rebellious’. Each of these stories consists of three segments: The Story, the Destination and the Dialogue where the pros and cons battle it out in a ‘sort of intellectual musing with the demons that hiss in our heads’.
Haddad’s book is rife with her own stories; a chapter that tells of her grandmother’s suicide and her own battle with depression, another on childhood lies and prejudices, while another includes a humorous tale regarding specific and general definitions of identity and heritage. She includes a moving piece as tribute to her sons, and in another speaks candidly about what it took for a handsome boy called Toni to finally notice her and the day she discovered Barbara Streisand. There is a chapter on sex featuring a sleepy dick.
And then there is Plato – the man himself – who has appointed the author his messenger to bring forth ideas he had missed in his ‘Republic’ – mainly ‘The Humane Being’. The great philosopher makes an appearance at the end of every chapter with advice he could have given on his deathbed.
If by now, this is all seeming a bit confusing, then you’re definitely on the right path because quite frankly it is. ‘The Human World is a Book’ writes Haddad, ‘The difficult kind; the kind people call a ‘tough read’ that challenges your predetermined views, your prearranged dispositions and your ‘familiar territories’. However, if you stick with it long enough - then she promises you a Magical Book like ‘Alice in Wonderland’ or one that is as diverse as a Dictionary, as perplexing as a Borges Poem, as subversive as a Marquis de Sade’s novel, even as entertaining as a Shakespeare Play’ – her examples not mine. Not quite! – my words, not hers.
Haddad advocates that our humaneness is our deliverance from the clutches of the afflictions of today’s social order that is built with ‘artificial measure units such as money, authority, sexual ‘norms’, gender, race, class, and so on and so forth’. And that in order to purge ourselves it is time we reconnected with the basic DNA of our being – our Humaneness – which is the one true element that can ‘stitch our dismantled and divided human family back together again’.
My initial reaction when I finished reading ‘The Third Sex’ was to tweet about it as ‘a relevant discourse in present turbulent times’. I completely stand by my initial impression although I do fear she will find it slightly more difficult to rally as many recruits for her cause with her latest book. Haddad can string her words, a fact no body can deny and although she presents a fierce argument, she also veers towards self-agrandizement and the sensationalist and until she tones it down, the noise is too deafening to hear exactly what it is she’s trying to say.
However, Haddad has never been one to shy away from addressing sticky issues even at the expense of sensationalising social taboos if it has meant getting her ideas across. So far it has worked and the accolades she has won are testament that she has done what others before have failed to do. And with this, her latest offering, readers can do far worse than to look inwards as a way to exude a better outward self especially if it translates into the collective advancement of all society to a better place, away from the destruction and the chaos. So, by all means, to that I say, Viva the revolution!
About the author:
Joumana Haddad is a Lebanese poet, author, journalist, academic and human rights activist. She has been selected as one of the world's most 100 most powerful Arab women for the past two years by CEO magazine Middle East, for her political and cultural activism. She is the cultural editor of An Nahar newspaper, and the founder of JASAD magazine, a one of a kind erotic cultural magazine in Arabic. She has received many national and international awards and recognitions, and her previous books 'I killed Sheherazade' and 'Superman is an Arab' have been translated to more than 15 languages. Her other works include 'Lilith's Return', 'Mirrors of the Passers by' and the play 'Cages'.